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Over-the-top charity may be too extreme to be truly helpful

Eric Hebert’s former home, at 10512 Baldy Mountain Road in Sandpoint was built by “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in 2005. The bank took it back in October. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Eric Hebert’s former home, at 10512 Baldy Mountain Road in Sandpoint was built by “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in 2005. The bank took it back in October. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

If you want a handy metaphor for the economic ups and downs of the past five years, you could do worse than the house on Baldy Mountain Road outside Sandpoint.

The extravagant, customized home – one neighbor calls it “the castle” – was built in November 2005 by the stunt charity show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” relying on a massive volunteer effort to help a bachelor who had stepped in to raise his sister’s kids after she passed away. The bachelor proceeded to refinance the place twice, lose his job, try to start a business, default, leave town. The bank foreclosed on the castle in October. It sits on the market, price plummeting.

The demand for extreme ain’t what it used to be. And in Sandpoint, the appetite for that particular brand of extreme seems to be down to nil.

“I am disappointed,” said Stan Hatch, a Sandpoint real estate agent and the man who coordinated volunteers and resources for the show back in 2005. “You can’t help but be disappointed.”

Hatch, like a lot of people, feels let down by Eric Hebert, the man who was given the home. He’s proud of the effort Sandpoint made to build it – on the show’s falsely pressurized deadline, in order to meet its gonzo fireworks-and-group- hugs dynamic – but he wonders whether the entertainment needs of the show overwhelm its supposedly charitable purpose.

“That house is not just first class, but way over the top,” he said. “If you could take that many resources and apply them over three, five, six families that need help …”

Hebert is believed to have returned to Montana with the kids, but my efforts to track him down were fruitless. He moved to Sandpoint in 2004 to take care of his sister’s twins. He has said he was shocked at the mobile home they were living in; he bought a place – essentially a roofed basement – and was trying to make it work when the TV show contacted him.

If you haven’t seen “Extreme Makeover,” it goes something like this: Family in need is sent away on a luxury vacation while the annoyingly peppy crew whips the locals into a volunteering frenzy. Businesses and residents donate labor and materials, work around the clock. The home is revealed to the lucky family with a background of cheering volunteers.

Cut to commercial.

Makes for great TV. But almost immediately, Hebert had trouble keeping up with the place. Taxes, utilities – turns out a free castle doesn’t come cheap.

“He told us at one point the heating bill was $300 a month,” said Terrie Collins, who lives next door to the place. “I think it was just built too big.”

In past interviews, Hebert said he refinanced against the home – first for $250,000, then for $382,500 – thinking he had a secure job working construction, but his employer went out of business. Eventually, he tried to sell the home, but by then – May 2008 – the housing market had gone from bubble to puddle.

He defaulted in January 2009, and apparently left town last June or so. The bank took it back in October. The list price for the home has gone from $529,000 to just over $300,000.

Hebert has drawn a lot of ire and invective, and some of it may be deserved. I always hate it, though, when people play the game of pick on the charity recipient – assessing their worthiness, analyzing their financial acumen, proclaiming their mistakes. The tenor of such criticism boils down to: They got what they deserved.

That simplifies the world – makes the fortunate feel virtuous, the selfish feel righteous – but the world is not simple. Plenty of people who are smart as hell about money but shady to the core are not getting what they deserve right now – they’re getting bonuses. Lots of people living in lousy homes, not sure where the next meal is coming from – are they getting what they deserve? Those kids Hebert is raising – are they?

I wondered if people who do the steady, day-to-day work of charity in Sandpoint had any bad feelings about the whole experience. I called Alice Wallace, executive director of the local food bank – and she put me straight about the true spirit of charity.

“I have always tried to have the attitude that different people want to donate to different things,” she said. And as for Hebert, “I don’t want to condemn him until I’ve walked in his shoes.”

A lot of people – especially in the online world of snark and self-superiority, and in the world of televised hit-and-run charity – might take a lesson from Wallace. True charity isn’t a one-time feel-good extravaganza, just as people in true need don’t need be lavished with luxury. What they’re lacking is not a mansion.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or